Some quirks of Florida history are so quirky they just couldn’t have been made up. That’s certainly the case with the attempt by state officials in the 1960s to rename that delicacy of North Florida delicacies, the mullet.
Mullet has long been a staple food in Florida, specifically the northern Gulf Coast region. Before modern refrigeration came about, entire families would come from as far away as northern Georgia and Alabama to catch and preserve barrels of mullet. Salting and smoking were both common methods for preserving the fish. Smoked mullet is still a favorite in many coastal communities such as Apalachicola, Carrabelle, and Steinhatchee. The fish is delicious by itself, on crackers with hot sauce, or in a dip. Fried mullet can also be found on many restaurant menus in the Big Bend region, usually served with hushpuppies and a large helping of grits.
Delicious though it may be, mullet has always had one nagging problem: its name. Across America, folks often associate the term “mullet” either with its namesake hairstyle of the 1970s and 80s, or with one of the many other species of fish that share the name. Indeed, “mullet” can refer to almost any of the fish in the families Mugilidae and Mullidae. Most of these species are used strictly for bait, or simply aren’t used at all. Only black mullet (Mugil cephalus) seems to please the palette enough for use as a food fish.
Over time, this caused problems for commercial mullet fishermen. By the 1960s, frozen fish and canned tuna and salmon dominated the non-fresh fish market nationwide. Fresh mullet was in demand in North Florida, but hardly anyplace else. Accordingly, the market price occasionally dropped to as low as two or three cents per pound. In 1962, the State Board of Conservation decided to do something to try to save the industry. Randolph Hodges, the board’s director and a native of the commercial fishing village of Cedar Key, decided the solution would be to find a better way to market the fish to new consumers outside the state. But how do you convince someone to buy a can of fish they think is a “trash” fish?
Hodges decided mullet might be an easier sell if it had a new name. While searching for plausible alternatives, he hit upon the idea of naming the fish “lisa.” The mullet family contains a genus called “liza,” which Hodges felt was a much more appealing name that might help ease the distrust of northerners unfamiliar with the goodness of mullet. He and the State Board of Conservation immediately began campaigning to erase the term “mullet” from Florida’s lexicon. They encouraged canners to package the fish as “lisa” and sell it throughout the United States. Also, all mention of “mullet” in official state communications was to stop; “lisa” would be the preferred terminology.
Press commentary was skeptical throughout the entire experiment, but Hodges and his public relations team were persistent. They staged taste test events at school lunchrooms, hospitals, and even the state prison at Raiford. They sent promotional cans of “lisa” far and wide, inviting food editors to comment on the flavor of the meat and provide suggestions for its preparation. The Conservation Board also sent out packets of recipes for dishes like “Lisa Pilaf,” “Lisa Casserole Supreme,” and even “Lisa Luxury Loaf.” If that wasn’t an all-out selling effort, we aren’t sure what is.
Ultimately, the public response to the campaign was lukewarm at best. Consumers and food critics were amenable to trying lisa, but they found the new name to be rather contrived. The spectacle of renaming a fish with such a lengthy history created more dubious publicity than simply attempting to market mullet as, well, mullet. Eventually the state opted to give the old name another try. Mullet never became as big as tuna or salmon on the national market, but it’s still a favorite on the Florida Gulf coast, no matter what you call it.
Where is your favorite place to get fried mullet, smoked mullet, or smoked mullet dip? Share with us by leaving a comment below or on our Facebook page!